The Chaska Police Department and the Carver County Sheriff’s Office, which handles Chanhassen law enforcement, are moving to a more-encrypted radio system in the next year.
With $187,000 in grant funds completely covering the Chaska department’s radios, the city will soon be able to “effectively communicate” with county deputies with 145 newly-encrypted radios, according to the city.
That Coronavirus Emergency Response Grant is federal dollars given for pandemic-related uses, which Chief Ryan Seibert said fits in with the encryption.
“Concern is obviously privacy of the public in dispatch settings for medicals and other types of situations,” he said, noting that privacy “really shifted with the pandemic just to ask very specific questions just to inform the first responders.”
That includes sensitive information like positive COVID test results or COVID symptoms, both Seibert and Sheriff Jason Kamerud said, though Kamerud added last summer’s civil unrest was another prompting factor.
Many of the county’s radios are already encryption-capable, Kamerud said, but the county is waiting for Chaska to get its equipment to start using them. Depending on supply delivery, Kamerud said encryption could start by late 2021 or early 2022.
Seibert said it’s important to note encryption doesn’t make all information private, but rather delays publicly available information that can be data requested later.
It would give the sheriff’s office time to respond to the data request, determine which parts are public, and redact any confidential portions, he said. It also prevents any potentially-threatening parties from having real-time access to public safety issues, he added.
“If we’re trying to evacuate based on threat, in the then and now if it can be restricted, it has a public safety benefit. Especially with the proliferation of scanner apps, it does create a public safety issue and an officer safety issue when people have (immediate) access to that data,” he said.
The department’s current radios were bought in the early 2000s, Seibert said, and they’re no longer reliable or as safe.
“It comes to a head at a certain point and decisions have to be made,” he said. “The coronavirus (pandemic) did definitely emphasize the need for encrypted communications just based on the privacy and data of what was getting transmitted and received.”
Encrypted radios aren’t akin to Morse code, but rather a “technological distinction,” Seibert said. Only encrypted radios can receive that information and officers still use the devices in the same way as they’re used to.
A big use for non-encrypted radios are newsrooms offering breaking or timely news, said Matt Ehling, executive director at Public Record Media.
“Particularly TV in the metro, you’re gonna find in a newsroom there’s a police radio scanner, it’s how … you have news coverage so quickly,” he said. “To lose that kind of information due to encryption would sort of block the press from being able to monitor these events independently. You’re relying on the police as to what transpired at the event.”
Nonprofessionals using Twitter or online crime watchers may use scanners to keep in the loop about community crime and happenings, too.
He did say there could be scenarios where a “bad actor” can monitor transmissions for the wrong reasons.
The Carver County Sheriff’s Office is beginning to use body-worn cameras, which the Chaska Police Department has been using for a few years.
The office began budgeting for them last year, Kamerud said, estimating around $250,000 for the next five years or so.
“We knew this was going to be an inevitable tech that we were gonna have to use,” he said.
After a public comment period, which mostly supported the move, Karmerud said the next few months will focus on training and demonstrating officers.
There are around 60 cameras in total.
For the Chaska department, Seibert said it’s been relatively well-received by public and staff.
“From my perspective, it is a tool that provides a pretty good account, or accurate account, of what occurred during the time of the incident,” he said.
It can be helpful for evidence and transparency, he added.
A challenge has been battery life, which lasts around 10 hours, Seibert said. Officers can’t take off their body-worn cameras to charge them.
He said it’s important to note body cameras are usually activated “for the duration of the encounter” like a traffic stop, for instance. If the instance is a casual officer-citizen, the battery is running low, or isn’t needed for “evidentiary value,” they can turn them off, Seibert said.
Depending on the footage, the video will be kept anywhere from 90 to 180 days or more.